What exactly is a smart grid?

A smart electrical grid has the potential to play a key role in the effort to lower energy costs for consumers, reduce energy dependency and cut greenhouse gas emissions. How can all of this be realized and what can governments do to ensure such a grid can be made a reality? Dr. Richard Charnah, technology director of Areva T&D UK, explains.

Dr. Richard Charnah, AREVA T&D, UK

The electricity grids which serve European consumers today have evolved using similar technologies and infrastructure for more than a hundred years. Although the grid in its current form has served us well to date, increasing energy demand and the way electricity is transmitted and distributed means that it will be unable to cope with the emerging challenges and policy imperatives.

Click here to enlarge image

Various industry forums and articles in the media, indicate that the term ‘smart grids’ is used interchangeably with smart metering by some à‚— but this is too simplistic. True, a smart meter initiative will play a role in helping to deliver a smart electrical grid but it is not a magic bullet à‚— it is only one piece of the jigsaw.

Firstly, it is important to clarify what is meant by a smart electrical grid, which is also sometimes referred to as a smart grid. A smart grid is an electricity transmission and distribution system that is adapted to the changing generation and consumption landscape, enabling it to cope with new challenges arising from market liberalization, increasing penetration of renewable energy sources and technical developments.

In order to meet future needs, the grid of tomorrow will need to be flexible, accessible, reliable and economical. The approach needs to embrace emerging technologies including: superior simulation tools; advanced communications, metering and business systems; innovative power electronics; and next generation network equipment and technologies that provide increased power transfer, reduced energy losses and improve supply quality and reliability. These technologies have to be established in a way that allows for rapid and cost-effective deployment, which in turn, will open up the energy market to new low-carbon footprint, distributed generators.

Key challenges to be addressed

There are a number of key challenges that still need to be addressed in order to ensure that a smarter grid can be made a reality à‚— for instance monitoring and control systems need to be suitably equipped to help assure the stability of electricity networks.


The ability for consumers to become ‘prosumers’, i.e. generate and sell electricity, is a key element of the implemenation of smart grids
Click here to enlarge image

The UK, for example, has the potential to be a major player in renewable energy generation because of the wind energy (and other) opportunities available in the North Sea. An important issue then is not just how to generate the power, but also how we can ensure that the power will get to where it is needed.

The grid of tomorrow will need to have a high degree of flexibility and to be self healing and reconfigurable. Power electronic technologies such as HVDC (High Voltage Direct Current) transmission and Flexible Alternating Current Transmission System (FACTS) devices will help to address this challenge and will, for instance, help to enable wind farms to connect to the grid in a more flexible way.

It is also important to note that, with a high proportion of intermittent renewable generation, situations will occur where more or less power can be generated than is actually needed by consumers, which raises the important question: are we equipped to store surplus à‚— green à‚— energy for release when required? Today’s answer would be no!

The challenge of energy storage will of course be heightened with the growth of micro-generation technologies, possibly including hydroelectric plants and heat pumps, and the possibility of a massive deployment of electric vehicles, which could appear as a load and as storage/supply. This will also call for bi-directional flow of power.

Making a difference

Areva T&D UK’s technology centre in Stafford is playing an integral role in undertaking short-term and long-term research activities. Short-term smart grid research has already resulted in real-life deployment benefits. In the area of information technology and communications, network owners are already incorporating new technologies into their power network infrastructures, which are helping to enhance the operation and provide a fuller understanding of the system status.

Developments such as thermal measurement and thermal estimator algorithms are enabling the creation of products that allow network owners to manage the dispatch of power in their grid so that, while avoiding overheating of components and associated network losses, the capabilities of the equipment can be fully utilized. Populating the future grid with nanoscale sensors may, in the future, allow optimization of the performance of the grid in that it will permit real-time condition monitoring of all the components. However, in the shorter term, we are looking at securing network operation and management benefits through the incorporation of a more restricted number of sensors in key equipment.

Implementing more sensors and communication links into transmission and distribution network equipment such as transformers and circuit breakers will provide an increased opportunity for improved use and efficiency. The improvement in communication within the grid could also drive a change in the way in which grid components such as circuit breakers are used.

Smarter homes, Smarter consumers

Distribution network operators are also now providing smart meters to domestic consumers. These devices allow remote reading of meters that enables automated billing. Areva T&D is among those creating the technology to enable these meters to act as a platform for real-time pricing of electricity to the consumer. Such a change could happen very soon and would lead to a demand-side revolution that will enable customers to become much more interactive within the network.

In these customer-centric networks, consumers will decide whether to use energy intensive appliances at peak times or instead delay their use until demand and the energy price are lower. Such mechanisms will help to drive the smoothing and removal of peaks in demand that the industry experiences today. This could in turn lead to a reduction in the amount of spinning reserve needed for system stability and security of supply and/or costly reinforcement of the network, and therefore reduce the environmental impact.

There will be parts of the network that will need to be upgraded or renewed and new lines/cables will also need to be installed, so making the grid smarter will be an evolutionary process à‚— no-one is suggesting that a brand new grid be built. Governments can positively contribute by promoting the field demonstration of new technologies such as the ones mentioned above and by supporting the communication between all grid stakeholders including policymakers, regulators, network operators, generators, developers and equipment and technology providers.

The need for discussion

Introducing a UK-specific forum for smart grids could be one way of bringing key stakeholders together to understand more clearly the imminent challenges and to help decision making processes in order to ensure the necessary actions are taken.

During the first International Conference on the Integration of Renewable Energy Sources and Distributed Energy Resources back in 2004, industry stakeholders including regulators, network operators, network designers, equipment manufacturers and technology providers, as well as the research community, recognized that a technology platform for the electricity networks of the future had to be created.

It became apparent through these discussion groups that there were doubts as to whether the existing electricity grid would be able to effectively integrate existing and future concepts such as renewable energy, micro-generation and the automation and operation of the current network.

As a result, the European Commission Directorate General for Research developed the initial concept and guiding principles of the Technology Platform with the support of existing research alongside IRED (Integration of Renewable Energies and Distributed Generation), which represents over 100 stakeholders in the electricity networks sector.

Subsequently, the SmartGrids European Technology Platform for Electricity Networks of the Future was formed and began its work in 2005 with an overarching aim to formulate and promote a shared vision for the development of European electricity networks looking towards 2020 and beyond.

The scope of this particular platform aims to provide a joint vision towards an electricity network that is flexible, accessible, reliable and sustainable. The market for sourcing energy has widened and as a result the network needs to be flexible in order to adapt to future developments and fulfil the needs of both the consumers and the network operators. Customers’ habits and the manner in which they use their energy will also transform over time and the network needs to be able to cope with such changes.

The network of the future is also required to be accessible in that it needs to grant connection access to all network users, particularly for renewable power sources and high efficiency local generation with zero or low- carbon emissions.

Traditionally, through transmission and distribution systems, power stations dispatch power and there is little or no consumer participation and no end-to-end communication. Individuals, small businesses and communities who utilize micro-generation technologies, such as small-scale wind turbines, hydroelectric plants, ground source heat pumps and photovoltaic solar systems should be equipped with the ability to send electricity back to the grid so that it becomes a bi-directional flow of power. This would provide real benefits for both the operator and the consumer, who should then be incentivized.

Changing the industry’s mindset

Assuring and improving the security and quality of the electricity supply, consistent with the demands of the digital age with resilience to hazards and uncertainties is also a key requirement to meet the needs of Europe’s future, and one that the technology platform will strive to ensure is implemented. Today’s society depends on a secure supply of energy.

There are countries without adequate reserves of fossil fuels that are facing increasing concerns over primary energy availability. Furthermore, the ageing infrastructure of Europe’s electricity transmission and distribution networks is threatening the security, reliability and quality of supply. We need to be looking at ways of redesigning grids that address these challenges.

The technology platform will also seek to form a network that is sustainable by providing best value through efficient energy management, deregulation and application of innovative technologies. Although SmartGrids seeks to address the challenges and opportunities for the electricity grids of 2020 and beyond, it needs to be an evolutionary process because of the cost involved and long life of the majority of existing network components.

Short-term issues require resolution immediately whilst defining and researching the long-term challenges. The strategy needs to fulfil the expectations of society, protect the environment, as well as minimize risk and allow for timely business decisions and actions to be taken.

In addition, the implementation of these emerging technologies will create a demand for Europe-wide regulatory and commercial frameworks, which support the creation of an integrated and fair energy market. It is integral to the success of such a market that appropriate standards and protocols are established.

It is important to note that SmartGrids is not just about the needs and opportunities of Europe. The majority of its features are appropriate and beneficial for networks around the world. However, it is triggers, such as the liberalization of the European energy market, the need for a secure cross-continent electricity network, as well as Europe’s recognition of identifying and implementing effective solutions that address global warming, which position Europe at the forefront of the SmartGrids revolution.

Although the advantages to having a technology platform in place are evident, there are tough challenges ahead. The most important of all is being able to change the mindset of the industry and encourage a collaborative working environment throughout the supply chain.

The fact remains that the grid as it is today will not be adequate for the future, therefore it is vital for the industry to work together now and start looking at the way the grid will operate, how electricity will be generated and transported and finally, how consumers will then use this energy.

This issue is intensified as the technology platform has no authoritative power in which it can enforce this way of working. It is an advisory council which provides advice, promotes a shared vision for the future and recommends a solution that is advantageous to not only the consumer, but the network operator and the environment.

President Obama’s recent commitment to invest nearly $4 billion to support the efforts of modernising the US electrical grid is a bold move and clearly demonstrates his commitment to making smart grids a reality. It will be interesting to see other governments’ interpretation of the challenges we face and what they propose in order to bring us up to speed.

More Powe Engineerimg International Issue Articles

Powe Engineerimg International Archives

No posts to display